Early Christian Architecture

A church in Pabuda, Syria.

By the end of the first century, it is evident that Christian places of worship had developed a somewhat standard form of architecture. Churches from the 1st through the 3rd centuries took classical Greek and Roman architecture in its most flourished form as its main influence. Classical architecture had at this time reached its height after developing for thousands of years.

The tendency to use Greek and Roman architectural styles was made without reference to their original symbolism. This allowed for a more complete freedom of architectural styles. There were, however, unique designs that were created specifically for churches. One of the few architectural developments made by early churches was the construction of a dome on top of a polygon.

The Basilica

The term Basilica originally denoted anything kingly or lordly. The basic characteristics of a basilica in terms of a place of worship are: a rectangular ground plan divided longitudinally into three or five aisles by columns which support the roof. The roof above the middle aisle (the nave) is raised above the adjacent aisles so that its supporting walls have openings for air and light. A half dome projects beyond the rectangular plan.

The spread of Christianity by the third century AD. The spread of Christianity by the third century AD.

By the third century, it was the Middle East that was the most flourished region for Christianity. This area mostly included Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. Unfortunately it is in this area that early Christian monuments have either been completely destroyed or hardly explored. Many of these early churches were likely converted by Islam into mosques, the most notable example being Hagia Sophia.

Here Syria is an exception. The conquest of Islam left the greater part of this area an empty desert. Since most of these early churches were built of stone, they have survived. They are therefore some of the best available examples of Christian architecture from the third and fourth centuries.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. in Bethlehem. Constantine ordered a church to be built over the place of Jesus' birth in 339 AD. Two crusading kings were later crowned here.

The Holy Land, especially Jerusalem and Bethlehem, was a place of pilgrimage and therefore was the site of many beautiful churches. Many of these were constructed first by the order of Roman Emperor Constantine and later Justinian. Scant remains are still left of these churches. The Crusaders who came 1000 years later, in their love of building, showed little respect for ancient monuments.

We would expect Egypt to be a wonderful place of ancient churches to explore, since it was one of the first Christian strongholds. But here too, the Coptic churches have been so thoroughly destroyed or fundamentally altered that not much more than the original foundation can be discovered.

Plan Views of Early Churches

Early Churches plan view 1 (A) St. Lorenzo, Rome; (B) Basilica in Suweda, Syria; (C) Basilica Ursiana, Ravenna; (D) St. Paul's, Rome.
Early Churches plan view 2 (E) Xenodochium of Pammachius, Porto; (F) St. Maria Maggiore, Rome; (G) Basilica in Kalb-Luseh, Syria.

Exterior and Interior Views of Early Churches

Basilica in Turmanin, Syria. Basilica in Turmanin, Syria.
Basilica in Kalb-Luseh, Syria Basilica in Kalb-Luseh, Syria
St. Apollinare in Nuovo, Ravenna. St. Apollinare in Nuovo, Ravenna. Sixth century.
St. George, Ezra, Syria. St. George, Ezra, Syria.

Take heed now; for the Lord hath chosen thee to build an house for the sanctuary: be strong, and do it.
1 Chronicles 28:10

Originally published

  Monuments of the Early Church by
  A History of Christianity by

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Early Christian Architecture

  • Justin
    This makes me curious as to why Christianty succeeded spreading predominately westward from its Roman epicenter, yet failed doing the same eastward. Any ideas?
  • Wake
    I would have to do some more research on the later years of Christianity, but I would say that Christianity did spread eastward. This was likely halted by the pushback of Islam in the seventh century. Egypt was as much of a Christian stronghold as Rome until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.
  • How does the basilica and its parts like the nav relate to the Christian ceremony?
  • Wake
    The Nave is a space specifically reserved for procession of the choir or acolytes from the entrance towards the front of the church. Church goers sit in pews on the outer sides of the nave. Next is the Transept, which is where a priest or minister gives the sermon. Above that and at the front of the sanctuary is the choir loft.
  • Kaii
    Hi! I'm an architecture student and I would like to know what are other examples of Early Christian Churches and also their parts (name of the rooms, space, etc.); I just wanted them as references for my future subjects :D Thanks a lot
  • Wake
    I spent quite a bit of time researching the churches in this article and these were the oldest ones I could find. If I find more I will certainly add them to the article. See the comment above for a list of the separate rooms of a church. Thanks for reading and good luck to you in architecture school!
  • Ben
    Are there any other examples of early Christians of this time period translating roman civic buildings into their new society?
  • Wake
    Ben, the churches listed in this article are the earliest ones that I could find that were constructed originally for the specific purpose of housing Christian worship services. Other churches exist from this time period that were simply converted from the worship of Roman gods. The Temple d'Auguste et de Livie in France is one such example. So old Roman temples were converted to churches but there is very little evidence that Roman civic buildings were converted to churches.
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